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Send a draft of your story to a source? Some journalists do it -- but be mindful of the risks.

(07/25/12 8:03pm)

A Washington Post reporter's decision to share a draft of a story with his sources is provoking a healthy discussion in newsrooms about when, if ever, it's wise to circulate unpublished material for comments. As originally reported in the Texas Observer, a Post education writer gave the media-relations department at the University of Texas at Austin an opportunity to review and suggest changes to a March 14 story about standardized testing.

Report: Free speech awareness rises in 2012, support for off-campus speech rights about the same

(07/17/12 5:35pm)

Fifty-seven percent of Americans believe that public schools should not be able to punish students for posting “offensive” content on social media, according to the latest installment of the First Amendment Center’s State of the First Amendment report. The 2012 report was released Tuesday, and while some of its findings continue to paint a grim picture for appreciation and knowledge of the First Amendment — 27 percent of Americans were unable to name any of its five freedoms, fairly consistent with last year’s results — a few responses are more optimistic for the future of the First Amendment inside and outside the schoolhouse gates. Just 13 percent of respondents believed the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, the lowest total in the past decade. National awareness of freedom of speech as a First Amendment-protected right jumped from previous years; 65 percent of those responding were able to volunteer "speech" as a protected right.

N.J. court: Schools can't withhold extracurriculars to play "good behavior police" for off-campus misconduct

(07/26/12 6:21pm)

When schools seek to punish students' off-campus behavior on blogs and social networking sites, their "penalty of choice" often is revoking students' eligibility for sports, honor societies and other extracurricular activities. That's because judges generally have given schools almost unlimited latitude to decide who may take part in after-school clubs that aren't considered central to the free public education to which every student is legally entitled. But a new ruling from a New Jersey appellate court torpedoes that distinction, and calls into question schools' widespread practice of withholding extracurricular activities to punish uncivil speech on the Web. In G.D.M.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: When that well-credentialed principal isn't well-credentialed or principled

(07/03/12 3:48pm)

If even the chief executive of one of Silicon Valley's biggest companies can be caught in an exaggeration on a resumé, then there's a chance that the provost of the local college and the superintendent of the local school district aren't above inflating their credentials as well. While it's the employer's job to verify the professional and educational claims before making a high-profile hire, the system isn't foolproof.

Wash. appeals court considers landlord's libel suit over high school newspaper

(07/09/12 6:25pm)

The Washington Court of Appeals heard arguments in a libel suit against the student newspaper at Roosevelt High School on Monday, a case raising the issue of a school district’s liability for stories written by student journalists. Landlord Hugh Sisley brought the lawsuit against the Seattle School District after The Roosevelt News published a story in 2009 claiming Sisley had “been accused of racist renting policies.” Sisley and his wife deny those allegations and claim the story defamed them. Superior Court Judge Kimberly Prochnau sided with the school district last year, finding both that the story was not libelous and also that the school could not be held liable for the work of student journalists who are not the school's agents or employees. On appeal, the Sisleys are challenging both of those findings and want the case to go forward to a trial. A three-judge panel of the appeals court heard oral arguments in the case Monday morning, appearing skeptical of arguments from both sides. School district attorney Jeff Freimund faced questions on the school’s liability for newspaper content, while the Sisleys’ attorney, Jeff Grant, was questioned on whether the story itself could be libelous. In legal briefs, the school district argues that it can’t be held liable for the story because the First Amendment prohibited school officials from censoring it.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Being charged for information you don't even get? That's [REDACTED] outrageous!

(07/10/12 11:59am)

What's more frustrating than asking for public records and getting back a page full of mysterious black rectangles? Getting charged extra for the rectangles. When a public record contains material that is legally exempt from disclosure, state open-records laws typically require that the agency blank out -- or "redact" -- the exempt material and produce the rest. It's a common-sense alternative to making openness all-or-nothing.

Former Elon student asks N.C. Supreme Court to open police records at private colleges

(07/10/12 3:43pm)

Nick Ochsner, the former Elon University student journalist who was denied access to records held by the private school’s police department, is taking his case to the state Supreme Court. Ochsner filed a petition Tuesday to have his case against the university and the state attorney general’s office heard by the North Carolina Supreme Court.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Dead men tell no tales, as states shut down access to autopsy reports

(07/17/12 8:25pm)

In a setback for public access, a South Carolina judge has refused to allow journalists to review a medical examiner's autopsy report in connection with the death of a 25-year-old man shot by police. In a July 9 order, a Sumter County trial judge decided that autopsy records fall within the exemption in South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act covering "medical" records. Although autopsy reports traditionally are public record, privacy advocates are gaining traction across the country in seeking confidentiality, in part because of concerns that gruesome photos upsetting to the survivors may be widely distributed online. Reporter Joe Perry and his Sumter, S.C., newspaper, The Item, sued the Sumter County coroner in May 2011 seeking access to the autopsy records for Aaron Lee Jacobs, who was shot to death after officers investigating a carjacking said he drew a gun. Although the ruling went against disclosure, the outcome could have been far worse for journalists. The coroner's primary argument was that the records were confidential under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act ("HIPAA"), which often is used frivolously by government agencies to withhold records that, as in this case, have nothing to do with a doctor's delivery of medical treatment.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Follow the money? When services are privatized, sometimes you can't.

(07/24/12 5:30pm)

A Minnesota court is poised to decide how much information the public can demand from construction companies that take on eight-figure government contracts but decline to abide by the same disclosure requirements that apply to government agencies. The Timberjay, a weekly newspaper in northern Minnesota, is fighting to prove that a construction management firm and its subcontractors must honor requests under Minnesota's Government Data Practices Act for details about schools they are building at the public's expense. Typically, private companies are not within the reach of state open-records laws, which entitle the public to review and copy documents that are in the custody of state, county or city agencies. But lawyers for The Timberjay say this situation isn't typical. By assuming management of a $78 million package of school district construction projects, a private vendor, Johnson Controls Inc., also assumed the disclosure responsibilities that go along with that authority, they argue. Attorneys for the company argue that, in addition to expanding the law beyond its literal terms, a ruling in favor of the newspaper would discourage firms from seeking government work for fear of giving away sensitive internal information to competitors. The ruling will apply only in Minnesota, but it will be watched throughout the country, with governments increasingly "privatizing" what used to be public services performed by public employees. Variations of the issue are recurring across the country. The South Carolina Supreme Court will decide whether a state association of school administrators is so entangled with government -- through taxpayer funding, through the receipt of fringe benefits normally reserved for public employees and through exercise of legislatively assigned duties -- that it should be forced to obey South Carolina's open-records act. In Minnesota, the state Court of Appeals heard arguments last week in the Timberjay case, testing whether a private company can be brought within the coverage of the Data Practices Act when it performs a governmental function. And that question -- how "governmental" is the job of constructing school buildings -- may be decisive. Often, the information that journalists need about private contractors' performance is available through the government agencies involved in the contract.

College trustees lose open-meetings battle (they illegally closed a meeting) but win the war (nobody gets punished)

(07/27/12 8:36pm)

The good news for public access to government meetings: A New Jersey court says Rutgers University trustees failed to give proper advance notice of a closed-door "executive session," and discussed matters in that session that should've been deliberated in the open. The bad news: Nothing can be done about it. A disgruntled attendee sued after Rutgers' Board of Governors held a four-hour closed session in September 2008 preceding the board's regularly scheduled business meeting. The published notice of the meeting said only that the board would be going into executive session to discuss contract negotiations and other attorney-client matters.

Penn State's stained reputation can be cleansed only by sunshine

(07/30/12 9:24am)

Now that Joe Paterno's statue has been hauled away and dozens of his gridiron victories erased from the books, crippling NCAA fines imposed and football's Nittany Lions reduced to housecats, it's tempting to close the book on Penn State and declare "problem solved." We shouldn't. In the wake of Louis Freeh’s damning postmortem on Penn State’s non-response to the presence of a known pedophile on campus, seeing the university buried under sanctions was emotionally cathartic.

Texas students, arrested for creating fake Facebook profile, released from juvenile facility

(07/31/12 5:54pm)

The two young girls arrested for creating a fake Facebook page and posing as a classmate have been released from the Granbury Regional Juvenile Justice Center in Texas, the local director of juvenile probation said Tuesday. Director Beth Pate could not, however, say when the girls were released, and it was unclear how long they spent in the juvenile facility. The girls, ages 12 and 13, were each arrested July 16 on a count of online impersonation, a third-degree felony, said Hood County Sheriff Roger Deeds.

TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: IRS tax forms disclose inner workings of athletic conferences and other collegiate associations

(07/31/12 6:52pm)

We've talked on this blog in the past about the value of the IRS Form 990 in cracking the wall of silence at private colleges (and at the nonprofit "auxiliary" affiliates of public colleges, too). But there's a less-well-known way to use federal tax forms to check on what colleges are up to. Any good-sized college will belong to a multitude of nonprofit organizations, and each of those organizations also must file -- and must make publicly availably -- an annual tax return with details of its revenues and expenses.